A Collection of Short Films
Today when we go to the movies, we can sink into multiplex recliners and absorb the show without acknowledging or interacting with another human being. More than a hundred years ago, early cinema offered an alternative experience, with active audience engagement encouraged by a showman who might introduce the film, narrate its action, or lead the audience in a lantern slide sing-along between reels.
The magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès is perhaps the most prominent exemplar of this tradition, turning out fantastical, often hand-colored films such as A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904). These proto-Surrealist tableaux were often tied together with live, scripted narration that valiantly attempted to pass off these flights of untrammeled fancy as stories with discernible plots.
The archivist Serge Bromberg carries on the Méliès tradition in the 21st century, putting the show back into showmanship with his storied “Saved from the Flames” events, which pull together odd and unaccountable films from the vaults of his company, Lobster Films. His latest presentation includes world premieres of two new Georges Méliès restorations and several short films demonstrating unique and rarely exhibited stereoscopic processes. Here’s a bit about them in no particular order, as anything can happen at a Bromberg show.
Merry Frolics of Satan (1906)
Edward Wagenknecht, a scholar of the silent era who actually lived through it, jokes in his 1962 survey The Movies in the Age of Innocence that the devil was perhaps the screen’s first star and recalls that early cinematic depictions of hell—“a very beautiful place, full of couches and bowers and drapes and hangings”—made him “wonder if it was not possible that the place might have been maligned.” The devil certainly gets his due in one of Georges Méliès’s most beloved films, which plays like a cross between Faust and Cinderella, complete with a starlit coach flight led by an undead horse skeleton. Méliès himself plays Satan, and “merry” is certainly the right word to describe this bon vivant of the second-hand soul market.
Robinson Crusoe (1902)
Although Méliès’s work is prized for its specifically Gallic absurdity, he also took on projects that required considerable cultural and linguistic translation, not least his adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s quintessentially English novel Robinson Crusoe. For a man who had already been to the moon and back, the more earthbound special effects still posed a considerable challenge, as emphasized in this passage from Méliès’s script: “A thunderstorm breaks forth and dazzling lightning illuminates the rocks and landscape. This new effect in cinematography is obtained by an entirely new method never before utilised, and is of the most strikingly realistic character—the flashes of lightning being an exact counterpart of those in nature—and lends a wonderful sense of realism to the picture.”
Robinson Crusoe was also among the first works to feature Méliès’s Star Film logo incorporated into the set design, a clever early attempt at anti-piracy that worked all too well for Crusoe: the film was known to survive only in a ninety-second fragment until a more complete copy was donated to the Cinémathèque Française in 2011. This new restoration from Lobster Films uses a scanning process that better preserves the original colors.
Oracle of Delphi (1903), Magic Cauldron (1903), and Mysterious Retort (1906)
Alongside efforts to develop color and sound motion pictures through the 1910s and 1920s, several inventors, tinkers, and technicians labored to present films in three dimensions. The primary hurdle was not necessarily photographing a film in 3D—the basic principle had been amply demonstrated in still photography—but developing a system that could reliably project the film before an audience in all its stereoscopic glory. The early experiments with red-green anaglyph 3D, such as Edwin S. Porter and William E. Waddell’s now-lost demonstration film of 1915 and William Van Doren Kelley’s Plasticon films from 1922–1923, were technically impressive but regarded as not much more than a novelty.
Georges Méliès was not a pioneer of the 3D film—at least not knowingly. Méliès never endeavored to create a system for recording and projecting 3D films, but he inadvertently excelled at the first half of that equation. This was one magic trick that he apparently never realized he had achieved: the Méliès camera rig that quietly turned out 3D-ready negatives had been constructed for another purpose entirely.
Owing to the supply chain issues that arose from maintaining distribution offices in New York and Paris, Méliès often exposed two negatives for each of his films. Given the limitations of duping stocks at the time, it was common practice throughout the silent period to make one negative to meet domestic demand and another for international distribution, often assembled from different takes. What set Méliès’s films apart were his “trick shots,” which required that the two negatives be exposed simultaneously to preserve his precisely timed and calibrated effects. Amazingly, Méliès’s custom-built dual-lensed camera had just the right offset between lenses to record a convincing stereoscopic image. For the handful of films recorded by this camera for which both the American and French negative survive, Lobster has been able to create a digital approximation of these unwitting experiments in depth. These films were not meant to be exhibited in 3D, but the fact that they can be readily adapted for that format is a testament to Méliès’s technical exactitude more than a century ago.
LOUIS AND AUGUSTE LUMIÈRE
L’Arrivée d’un train, 1935
It’s common today to lament the prevalence of remakes and reboots, but they have been a part of cinema since its beginnings. Early remakes were often endorsed by the makers of the original and sometimes were even done by the original directors. Cecil B. DeMille remade his 1914 breakthrough The Squaw Man in 1918 and again in 1931. Abel Gance remade his 1919 pacifist landmark J’Accuse two decades later on the eve of World War II.
Even the Lumière brothers returned to their famous 1895 film of a train pulling into station some forty years later. The camera remains stationary, as if the succeeding four decades of film grammar never happened, but there’s something new after all: anaglyph 3D photography and projection that finally made good on the legend that unsophisticated early filmgoers believed the Lumières’ train was about to careen right off the screen. The 3D remake was exhibited in Paris, Lyon, Nice, and Marseilles in 1935.
Selections from the Animateur Stéréoscopique, c. 1900
Although no single system for stereoscopic films achieved a dominant market position in the silent era, the basic concept was familiar from other media. Stereoscopic viewers, the 19th century predecessor to the View-Master, which held a 3D photographic card at a fixed distance from a pair of prismatic lenses, flourished with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cartes-de-visite—wide postcards that included two side-by-side images of exotic lands, holy monuments, famous figures, and the like recorded from slightly different camera angles. (Savvy-eyed sleuths can still find copies of these mass-produced souvenirs.) Not unlike the earliest motion pictures, the stereoscope was meant for a solitary viewer with his or her eyes pressed up against the lenses, rather than an auditorium full of spectators. No wonder the two technologies were soon married.
One of the earliest technicians to experiment with 3D motion pictures was René Bünzli, a French watchmaker who applied his precision engineering to the Animateur Stéréoscopique, patented in 1900. Bünzli merged the principles of the common stereoscopic viewer with a much-simplified version of the basic Kinetoscope concept. A paper strip containing dozens of individual photographs (the left-eye and right-eye images printed side-by-side) is spooled through a series of rollers, with each image flitting past a small stereoscopic viewing port as a crank is turned. When the spool travels at the proper speed, the illusion of motion is thoroughly convincing, akin to the experience of thumbing through a flipbook. The films designed for Bünzli’s system could only last for a few seconds, which meant these journeymen filmmakers got their points across as succinctly as possible. An entire marriage, for instance, can be explained in ten seconds or less.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Donald Sosin
Image credit: Pamela Gentile